China sends fighter jets to guard oil rig in disputed waters: Vietnamese official

HANOI (AFP, XINHUA) - Vietnam on Sunday accused China of dispatching fighter jets to guard an oil rig in contested waters, as protesters in Hanoi staged one of the country's largest ever anti-China demonstrations.

Over the weekend, two groups of Chinese military aircraft flew above Vietnamese ships, which were tasked with preventing the rig from drilling, Colonel Ngo Ngoc Thu, Vice Commander and Chief of Staff of Vietnam's Coast Guard, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper on Sunday.

He said that China on Saturday expanded the radius of the protecting zone for the drilling platform to 10-15 nautical miles from the previous 5-7 nautical miles, with vessels deployed to block Vietnam's access to the rig.

The colonel's remark came as some 1,000 people, from war veterans to students, took to the street to protest against Beijing.

They waved banners saying "China don't steal our oil" and "Silence is cowardly" - a dig at Hanoi's handling of the dispute - and sang patriotic songs in a park opposite the Chinese Embassy.

"This is the largest anti-Chinese demonstration I have ever seen in Hanoi," said war veteran Dang Quang Thang, 74.

"Our patience has limits. We are here to express the will of the Vietnamese people to defend our territory at all costs. We are ready to die to protect our nation," he said.

Hundreds of plain clothes and uniformed police set up barricades to prevent protesters approaching the Chinese Embassy compound but made no move to break up the rowdy demonstration, even though the communist regime normally tightly controls any public expression of discontent.

Dozens of anti-China demonstrations have been held in Vietnam since 2007 to protest Beijing's perceived aggression over territory.

The two countries are locked in long-standing territorial disputes over the Paracel and Spratly islands, which both claim, and often trade diplomatic barbs over oil exploration and fishing rights in the contested waters.

Tensions between the communist neighbours have risen sharply since China announced in early May it would move a deep-water drilling rig into disputed waters - a move the United States has described as "provocative".

Vietnam said China's decision was "illegal", demanded the rig be withdrawn, and dispatched vessels to the area - which it claims were subsequently attacked and rammed by Chinese ships.

In return, Beijing slammed Vietnam for "framing up charges" and "hyping an outdate 'China threat' claim", according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said on Sunday that China's "illegal" move has put freedom of navigation in the South China Sea at risk.

"This extremely dangerous action has been and is directly threatening peace, stability and maritime security and safety," Dung said in an Asean summit in Myanmar.